The Back-Breaking Task of Every Believer

We’ve been given one job. 

Before leaving His disciples and ascending into heaven, Christ commissioned the eleven to one major task (Matt. 28:19–20). Though you may see other verbs in the Great Commission as imperatives (commands) in your English Bible, the Greek contains just one. All the other verbs are actions involved in that one job. 

What is it? Make disciples. 

Sounds simple, right? Maybe, but you know as well as I do that while it may be simple to understand, it’s far from easy to do. In fact, Paul gives us a hint in 1 Thessalonians 1 that it’s quite the opposite. He uses the Greek word kopos in conjunction with love, a word that means strenuous, back-breaking, sweat-producing work (see v. 3). Paul then goes on in chapter 2 to describe what his own kopos looked like when he labored among the young Thessalonian church for a few brief months. A careful examination of his description fleshes out what this task of making disciples ought to look like. But I warn you: it’s hard work. 

Remember Your Role 

As Paul and his companions came into Thessalonica, a sizable Greek town in the Roman Empire, they entered with one goal: to preach the gospel of Christ to whomever would listen. Indeed, Paul had been commissioned for this task by none other than the risen Christ Himself (see Acts 9:1–20). However, despite the prestige of being a chosen apostle of the Savior, having special authority bequeathed upon Him from above, Paul never took advantage of his position nor lost sight of the fact that he was merely a steward of the gospel: 

Instead, just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please people, but rather God, who examines our hearts. (1 Thessalonians 2:4, emphasis added)

This meant that Paul didn’t make his ministry all about himself. He always remembered that He was an emissary of the Lord (2 Cor. 5:18–20). 

Part of the back-breaking toil of love is to remember your role as a steward. Ultimately, making disciples is not about you; it’s always about Him. That means He is in charge of the results; He is in control of the message. It can be tempting to want to mold a young protégé into our own image, but that’s not the biblical model of discipleship. We must remember our role as stewards of the good news.

Nurture with Gentleness

Next, Paul compares his ministry to the Thessalonians to a new mother nursing her infant (1 Thess. 2:7). Given what’s revealed to us in narrative depictions of Paul in the book of Acts and in his own canonical writings, you may not think of Paul as particularly “gentle.” We tend to see the Paul who is bold in the face of opposition, who stands up for the gospel no matter the cost, and who isn’t afraid to contend for the purity of the gospel of Christ. Yet here in 1 Thessalonians, we get a different picture of the tough-as-nails apostle. He says that he dealt with these neophyte believers with the tenderness of a mother feeding her newborn.

I don’t know what exactly this tenderness looked like in Thessalonica, but here are a few possibilities. 

  • Answering the same question over and over.
  • Carefully choosing which sin issues to tackle and when.
  • Answering questions that seemed trivial or basic.
  • Going slowly through material he had mastered long ago.

Engaging in the arduous task of loving others well will require gentleness and tenderness from us as we point them to the Savior.

Life Investment

Perhaps the most fundamental element to the strenuous work of love is what Paul says in verse 8: 

We cared so much for you that we were pleased to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us. (1 Thessalonians 2:8, emphasis added)

Paul willingly invested all of himself in these other believers. Ministry wasn’t a slice of the pie; it was the pie. How easy it is for us to relegate discipleship to a mere compartment of our lives: Tuesday evenings from 6 to 8 or Thursday mornings from 8 to 11. But while that may be the appointed timing, it’s not the whole of discipleship. True love lets the other person in, allows them to see you when your house isn’t clean and your kids aren’t behaving. It answers hard questions and shares real struggles. Without this element, all the others become disingenuous. The toil of loving others well requires us to let our guard down and let others in—even if it’s not at the appointed time. 

Surrender of Rights

Paul and his missionary partners had every right to be paid for what they did; however, they often chose to forfeit this right for the sake of those whom they ministered to. 

For you remember our labor and hardship, brothers and sisters. Working night and day so that we would not burden any of you, we preached God's gospel to you. (1 Thessalonians 2:9)

Paul thought it more important to avoid being burdensome to the Thessalonians than to demand payment from these fledgling believers. He willingly surrendered this right in order to love and serve them. What rights are you willing to surrender for the sake of ministering to another person? 

  • The right to a cozy night at home in your jammies?
  • The right to be thanked or acknowledged?
  • The right to “me time” or self-care?
  • The right to avoid awkward conversations?

If we’re going to engage in the sweat-producing toil of love, we must be willing to let go of our rights. 

Pursuit of Holiness 

Imagine a driver’s ed instructor who returns from a ride with a student driver, gets into his own vehicle, turns the key, and races out of the parking lot, ignoring the stop sign on the way out, neglecting to buckle his seat belt, and leaving his student coughing in the smoke his tires created. This student who had just returned from a very cautious drive with his instructor critiquing his every move behind the wheel would no doubt lose all respect for his teacher after seeing him thumb his nose at the laws. 

The same goes for those who seek to walk alongside a younger believer in Christ. Part of the toil of love is to pursue holiness in your own life, setting an example for those looking up to you. Paul said it this way: “You are witnesses, and so is God, of how devoutly, righteously, and blamelessly we conducted ourselves with you believers” (1 Thess. 2:10).

To the Corinthians he put it even more boldly: “Imitate me, as I also imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).

I admit this is a tall mountain to climb. But Paul was not claiming to have achieved sinless perfection. He didn’t achieve it on this side of heaven, and neither will we. The point is that we cannot lead another person where we are not willing to go ourselves. Loving others requires us to do the hard work of pursuing holiness first and then calling them to follow suit. 

Of course, we do not and cannot do this in our own strength. We must depend upon God who is at work in us to conform us to the image of His Son (Phil. 2:13; Rom. 8:28–29). 

Boldness to Say the Hard Thing

Paul compares himself not only to a mother in this passage, but also to a father—a father who’s willing to have a “dad chat” with his kid who’s had a bad day or made a bad choice: 

As you know, like a father with his own children, we encouraged, comforted, and implored each one of you to walk worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. (1 Thessalonians 2:11–12, emphasis added)

Paul’s example teaches us that the back-breaking work of love requires discernment. Sometimes it asks us to be gentle and soft like a nursing mother; other times it requires a fatherly discussion. Most likely you’re more wired for one than the other. But are you willing to do the hard work of saying what needs to be said when the other person needs to hear it? 


Paul began this whole discussion with the Thessalonians by telling them not to think that his time with them had been in vain (2:1). Yes, he was mistreated in Thessalonica, just as he had been in Philippi. But he did not take that hardship to mean that he never should have gone in the first place. 

Love is hard work, and as with any difficult task, it comes with obstacles, setbacks, snags, and hardships. None of this necessarily means that you never should have begun. In fact, it may even mean that you’re doing it right. 

Christ left us with one command: make disciples. It’s not easy, but we must not give up. 

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About the Author

Cindy Matson

Cindy Matson

Cindy Matson lives in a small Minnesota town with her husband, son and daughter, and ridiculous black dog. She enjoys reading books, drinking coffee, and coaching basketball. You can read more of her musings about God's Word at

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